Edmund Morris met great expectations with Colonel Roosevelt, the third and final volume of his biography of the Rough Rider.
Morris made Roosevelt his life’s work. He wrote The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt as a young man. He wrote Theodore Rex, covering the presidential years, in middle age. It is apt and powerful that Morris completed the series at the age of 70, able to bring a lifetime of experience to his consideration of TR’s final years.
Brander Matthews famously described TR as “polygonal.” Like Edward Wagenknecht’s regrettably neglected The Seven Worlds of Theodore Roosevelt, Morris’s volumes take on the daunting challenge of presenting TR in full.
Colonel Roosevelt is methodically conceived and crafted, resembling a symphony. Themes and variations are thoughtfully placed, well-ordered. Reflecting a degree of care only possible from immersive writing over an extended period, Colonel Roosevelt is not marred by loose ends. Everything is brought together elegantly. The interior and external design values are strong, combining older era touches such as illustrations captioned by relevant excerpts from the text, with the most up-to-date, high quality dust jacket production.
The choices that biographers must make become clear in dealing with Roosevelt’s multifaceted life. One of the strengths of Morris’s third volume is his close attention to TR as a writer. Many studies of Roosevelt treat his writing as a sideshow or solely in the context of his political career. Morris takes it seriously. He also views it rather dispassionately. Roosevelt had tremendous capacities as a writer, in both imagination and execution. TR’s production ranged from memorable to jejune. Morris recognizes that TR was, ultimately, a writer, an artist who saw the world in literary terms, whose own life had a literary arc.
Morris is notably effective in bringing to life the epochal changes unleashed by the First World War. So, too, he offers a nuanced, perceptive examination of the parallel and interwoven journeys of Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. It may be that Morris, a meticulous scholar yet not an academic, is particularly well suited to appreciate Wilson–without being entranced as professors seem liable to be in the historical presence of one of their own.
Morris explicitly attempts to avoid “presentism,” the error of comprehending historical persons and events through the knowing prism of retrospect, rather than on their own terms. One wonders if he might at times be pulled somewhat astray in his renderings of some politicians from Roosevelt’s time. In this era of disappointing public leaders, we are more than justified in cultivating skepticism if not cynicism. Are we less prepared to recognize the reality of those who aspired higher, and achieved more in the past?
A reader whose knowledge of the 1912 presidential campaign is limited to Colonel Roosevelt might be forgiven for underestimating its historical significance. Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Eugene Debs were notably able, thoughtful representatives of various strands of the American character. The colorful language of the hustings–particularly from Roosevelt–should not distract us from perceiving the seriousness of the endeavor in the hearts and minds of many at the time.
So, too, Morris may lay emphasis on the flaws of political leaders of the early twentieth century, without offering a corresponding sense of their strengths. Though Morris does not dismiss Elihu Root as a “fixer” as one recent author rather notoriously did, it may not be clear to readers of Colonel Roosevelt just why Root was so highly regarded, including by TR himself. Likewise with Albert Beveridge, Charles Evans Hughes, Gifford and Amos Pinchot, and others. Each had failings that would be entirely familiar to us today; individually and together they had strengths that are all too rare today.
Roosevelt’s capacity to forge productive working relationships with people of very different views may have resulted in part from his recognition of their strengths. Pennsylvania Senator Matthew Quay, an archetypal boss, interlacing public and private interests, was a renowned Civil War hero. TR’s frequent adversary and erstwhile, reluctant booster, New York’s “Easy Boss,” Senator Thomas Platt, had roots to the founding of the Republican Party.
No matter what one’s political persuasion, it would be difficult to argue credibly that the overall level of leadership is as high today as it was at the turn of the twentieth century. TR’s example of seeing issues in advance, placing them in a comprehensible, actionable framework, and creating public support–from environmental protection to “preparedness” for the war in Europe–is particularly relevant at this moment of national restiveness about the future.
No work, even one as comprehensive as The Colonel and its predecessors, can credibly aspire to be the last word on Theodore Roosevelt. Each succeeding generation will discern new lessons, rediscover lost insights in contemplating his timeless, enduring aspects. Nonetheless anyone seeking to understand TR’s extraordinary life and work will find no better place to begin than the worthy life’s work of Edmund Morris.
Edmund Morris | Colonel Roosevelt